Why Plea Bargains are Not Confessions
30 Pages Posted: 5 Dec 2014 Last revised: 12 Jan 2016
Date Written: December 4, 2014
Is a plea bargain a type of confession? Plea-bargaining is often justified as at its core a process involving in-court confession. The U.S. Supreme Court’s early decisions approved plea bargains as something “more than a confession which admits that the accused did various acts.” I argue in this Article that plea bargains are not confessions — they do not even typically involve detailed admissions of guilt. The defendant generally admits to acts satisfying elements of the crime — a legally sufficient admission to be sure, but often not under oath, and often not supported by an extensive factual record. Because plea bargains typically contain only formulaic admissions, they have limited preclusive impact in future cases. The modern trend is to find issues not precluded by a guilty plea, except perhaps as to elements of the charged offense. The problem with the lack of adjudicated facts arises when other actors later seek to attach collateral consequences on that conviction. More careful development of the factual record could help to prevent at least some guilty pleas by innocent defendants, but also important, it could produce reforms to more narrowly target the collateral consequences that now attach to entire categories of convictions. That is why I view it as particularly important to understand precisely why plea bargains are not “more than” and are in fact much less than confessions.
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